As the 80th anniversary of Nazi German’s invasion of the Soviet Union approaches, Russia is digging in on President Vladimir Putin’s narrative concerning the heroic Soviet role in World War II. The narrative glorifies Russia’s contribution to saving the world from Nazi Germany while concealing or downplaying less admirable aspects such as Soviet cooperation with Germany in 1939-41, the occupation of Poland, and war crimes.
Last week an amendment passed its first vote into law in the lower house of the Russian parliament, stiffening the penalty for knowingly “spreading false information about the activity of the Soviet Union during the Second World War” and expanding it to encompass information published on the internet. The draft law imposes a fine of 3 million rubles ($40,665) on violators.
The official Duma announcement did not explicitly define “false information” in the context of the law. It did state that it will prohibit the publication of information that contradicts the facts established in the postwar Nuremberg trials or false information about Soviet actions during the war. The statement adds that “protecting the historical memory” is one of the most important principles of the constitution, reflecting “our collective memory and culture,” and that the state will defend “historical truth.”
Russia rejects, among other things, claims that it fully shared responsibility for the war after signing the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact on August 23, 1939, aka the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. In addition to the nonaggression protocol, the pact divided Eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence.
Subsequently, after Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, the Soviet Union did too, and occupied Poland was divided between them.
Another sore spot in Russian history has to do with Soviet war crimes against Poles. They include massacring nearly 22,000 Polish officers in the Katyn Forest and other locations in 1940, an atrocity that Russia denied for decades.
Russia also rejects Poland’s claims that the Soviet Union failed to support its resistance to the Nazi occupation, even when it ostensibly could have – particularly during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. Writing in Politico in January, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki stated: “While the people of Warsaw waited hopefully for help, Joseph Stalin never ordered the Red Army to intervene.” He added that in 1944, “the Soviet army stood 200 kilometers from Auschwitz, but the offensive was halted, allowing the Germans time to retreat and organize death marches until January 1945. He concluded that “[r]escuing Jews was never a priority for Stalin and the Red Army.”
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Poland also takes issue with the Soviets being crowned the “liberators” of occupied Poland in 1945, a title Putin boasts about. According to Warsaw, it was not a liberation but rather a “reoccupation” that lasted until the fall of the Communist regime in 1990. Poland says the Soviet occupation “cost millions of lives and robbed Poland and Central Europe of their independence and chance for normal economic development.”
Additional sensitive topics in Russian history about which Putin’s regime seeks to block discussion include the scope of the sacrifice paid by Soviet soldiers and citizens under the regime of Josef Stalin during the war. One of the most highly charged subjects in this regard is Germany’s siege of Leningrad, which lasted for nearly 900 days and killed some 750,000 people.
When a Russian television station tried, a few years ago, to question whether it could have been avoided if not for Stalin’s intransigence, the ensuing attack on the channel nearly led to its closure.
Putin may want to employ the new law to ensure that Russian internet toes the line with his version of history. At the same time, the new amendment is also a response to recent measures taken by European institutions that upset Putin. For example, in September 2019 the European Parliament passed a resolution on “the importance of European remembrance for the future of Europe” that says “the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact… paved the way for the outbreak of the Second World War.” Putin claimed that the signing of the pact was an inescapable last resort since the Soviet Union remained alone in the attempt to consolidate a front against Nazi Germany. Last year, the Polish parliament issued a similar decision that ratcheted up the tone against the Soviet Union and accused today’s Russia of “manipulation and historical distortions.”
Last year, this historical debate even reached Yad Vashem, where a major ceremony was held on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, attended by leaders from around the world, including Putin. After the ceremony, Yad Vashem was compelled to issue an unusual apology for some of the content that was presented during the event, which included “inaccuracies,” partial presentation of facts” and “an unbalanced impression” – in the portrayal of the Soviet Union as having vanquished Nazi Germany almost singlehandedly.
The amendment to Russia law arrives three years after the Polish attempt to pass a similar amendment that would make it a criminal offense, punishable with prison, for anyone who argues “contrary to the facts” that the Polish people was involved in Nazi crimes. This amendment was ultimately rescinded in wake of international pressure, but just last month a Polish journalist who wrote that Poles were involved in the Holocaust was questioned by police. Meanwhile, two Polish historians were just successfully sued for libel after a book they edited made the claim, based on the testimony of a Holocaust survivor, that a Polish man turned Jews over to the Germans.
Besides Russia and Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania and Hungary have also made headlines in the last few years with attempts to rewrite history, each in accordance with the narrative that serves it, which usually praises the heroism of the local people and the people it sacrificed in the war and minimizes or obscures the stains on its past. In addition to legislation, this takes the form of other policies, often involving the erection or removal of monuments.